One key trend in reality television is that what may not sound too exciting on paper can turn into one of the most captivating glimpses into a world that the average person is never exposed to. History has clearly found drama, excitement and even a laugh or two when they've turned cameras on such worlds as ice road trucking, pawn shops and the men who spend their lives working in the logging industry. "Ax Men" is currently airing its third season of episodes on History and the scope this time around has widened to not just focus on the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest but also looking at the business of water logging in South. To get an inside look at the world that "Ax Men" captures for curious audiences, our Jim Halterman talked with Executive Producer Michael Stiller about why these guys would never do any other job, searching for logs with your feet and how a very small bug can freak these loggers out.
Jim Halterman: In creating the show, were the producers aware that there would be such a good amount of drama and intensity in this world?
Michael Stiller: Everyone knew there was something special about 'Ax Men' I think even before it hit the air. What's always been special about it is that this is legitimately one of the most dangerous jobs that exist in the United States and I don't think a lot of people realize that but it really and truly is. The kind of logging that these guys do on an incline is not only strenuous but it's also dangerous. From the very first frame I remember looking at some of the rough cuts of 'Ax Men' that I got a chance to see and you could really see that they had something special in a sense that you really got to know these guys. These are real men doing a tough job who maybe don't always get along but yet a day on the job is not the same for them as it is for you and me. If I have a bad day, I might get a headache. If these guys have a bad day they might potentially lose their life. There's always been something very, very big about the characters. From the beginning, these are the real men of logging.
JH: With the life-threatening danger and challenge of this job, what keeps these guys so passionate about it?
MS: You get the sense from watching and even from meeting them that they just love doing this. This is their world. Some of them come from valleys that have had loggers that go back generations and it's literally in their blood. The danger is something that they're very respectful of but at the same time this is what they know and this is what they love and I think that's what keeps them coming back.
JH: This season, the show is looking at bi-coastal groups for the first time. Were the Louisiana/Florida groups different from the West Coast guys?
MS: Definitely. It's a totally different form of logging. On the West Coast, you're seeing these really large, established operations who have scores of people working for them at any given time. It's a real, real process. Down South, what you're seeing with the water logging is more of these really small groups, these independent operators who might only work with a couple of different people at a time. In the case of Shelby Stanga, he really is someone who works on his own for the most part. When they log in the Pacific Northwest, they obviously know where the logs are and it's all about cutting them down, harvesting them and getting them off the mountain, which is a huge challenge. Down South with the water loggers, it's like a treasure hunt. It's about finding something that has been abandoned in history at some point. These logs which typically were logging rafts or have been towed down the river at some point when that area was being logged and then they sunk to the bottom. In the case of Shelby Stanga, he literally goes through the water and searches with his feet because the water is so murky.
JH: I didn't even know the water logging part of the business existed.
MS: I didn't either! It's interesting how that touches history because here we have logging as part of the American DNA. The American history of logging is very important and is one of the ways that we built our country. What these water loggers are really doing is making money by, in a sense, touching history. They're going after these artifacts left behind but once these things sink to the bottom, they sort of take on a certain quality that makes them really valuable.
JH: On the show we see a lot of competition between the logging groups but does that exist outside of the show?
MS: They are! Certainly Rygaard and Connor and Browning are very competitive. They're aware of each other, met each other and want to have the bragging rights to being the company that pulls the most logs.
JH: How has the technology changed over the years for the business?
MS: I think the technology has evolved. At times, you see these unbelievable machines especially out West but Ax Men has always been more about the men than the machines. On some level, there are things these guys do in their everyday job that is very similar to what their fathers would have done. The cutters are basically using very high-end chain saws but they're cutting trees with similar techniques that they would have used 20-30 years ago. I'm no expert on logging technology but it seems that it does increase and get better every year but there are these more traditional techniques that are used over and over.
JH: With so much attention on the environment, how does that play into the everyday work these guys are doing?
MS: One of the things you see in the modern logging industry is they really see themselves as 'stewards of the land.' They use that term over and over again so they'll be more cognizant of new-growth trees and the vicinity of where they are logging and they'll try not to interrupt that. Some of them do re-planting and I've seen that in past seasons. I know that one of them this year in Connor Logging might even be harvesting a certain area that's being cut down because it posed a threat for forest fires. There seems to be an environmentally conscious strain to what these guys do. They seem to take that very seriously.
JH: As much as you might want to be entertained by seeing these big guys running from bees, as we see in the series, it truly can be a dangerous part of the job, right?
MS: It looks pretty bad from where I sit and certainly isn't something that I'd want to be doing!
"Ax Men" airs every Sunday night at 9:00/8:00c on History.